The second highest mountain range in the UK is a mountain range in the eastern Highlands of Scotland. In modern terms, these mountains are known as the “Cairngorms.” The Cairngorms include the highest, coldest, and snowiest plateaux in the United Kingdom. Five of the six highest mountains in Scotland come from this mountain range: Ben Macdhui (1309 m); Braeriach (1296 m); Cairn Toul (1293 m); Sgor an Lochaine Uaine (1258 m); and Cairn Gorm (1245 m).
But our tale today is not one speaking of each of these mountains beings Munros, but the mystery surrounding Ben Macdui, for upon Ben Macdui’s summit, one might encounter the gaelic creature known as Am Fear Liath Mòr (meaning “Big Gray Man”). The tale goes that Am Fear Liath Mòr takes great umbrage with climbers who attempt to scale the mountain.
The tales came before Professor Norman Collie chronicled his experience on the mountain, but the good professor’s story brought the situation to light. Collie was respected scientist and Professor of Organic Chemistry at University College London. He was the first man to use a medical X-ray photograph. Collie was also a Fellow of the Royal Society.
Collie was also a well respected climber. He pioneered many climbs on the Isle of Skye, as well as in the Alps. “In 1895, he was part of the first ever attempt on the 8000 meters peak in the Himalayas, Nanga Parbat. He later went on to make 21 first ascents in the Canadian Rockies. He is remembered in the names of Mount Collie in Canada and Sgurr Thormaid (“Norman’s Peak”) on Skye.” (Undiscovered Scotland)
“So when, in late 1925, the still eminent and active Professor Collie stood up to give a speech to the 27th Annual General Meeting of the Cairngorm Club in Aberdeen, he was a man whose words carried a great deal of weight with his audience. Which added all the more to the impact of part of what he had to say, about an experience he had while alone on the summit of Ben Macdui (as the name is now spelled) in the Cairngorms, 34 years earlier in 1891:
‘I was returning from the cairn on the summit in a mist when I began to think I heard something else than merely the noise of my own footsteps. For every few steps I took I heard a crunch, and then another crunch as if someone was walking after me but taking steps three or four times the length of my own. I said to myself, “This is all nonsense”. I listened and heard it again, but could see nothing in the mist. As I walked on and the eerie crunch, crunch, sounded behind me, I was seized with terror and took to my heels, staggering blindly among the boulders for four or five miles nearly down to Rothiemurchus Forest. Whatever you make of it, I do not know, but there is something very queer about the top of Ben MacDhui and I will not go back there again by myself I know.'” (Undiscovered Scotland)
Collie’s story had others scrambling to tell their tales. One of the more “sinister” reports came from a man called Alexander Twenion. In 1943, Twenion claimed he wounded a creature he encountered on Ben Macdui. According to the man, a gray “shadowy” beast trailed Twenion’s descent along the Coire Etchachan path. The creature stalked him, and Twenion fired three shots before fleeing in the direction of Glen Derry. (Historic Mysteries)
Descriptions of the creature vary somewhat, but it is generally is thought to be a man of some ten feet in height, who walks erect. He possesses broad shoulders. long, ape-like arms, which he gesticulates wildly. He is covered in short, brown fur/hair and holds an olive complexion. Those who see (or more likely feel) the creature’s presence do so just below the skyline near what the locals call Lairg Ghru Pass. “Witnesses report feelings of dread or stark terror and can become so intense and overwhelming that the urge to jump off the cliff at Lurcher’s Crag is seriously considered as an option. Some people are of the opinion that this is precisely what the Grey Man is attempting to do.” (Historic Mysteries)
“Alastair Borthwick’s superb 1939 book about climbing in Scotland, “Always a Little Further” relates the accounts of two climbers he knew who had experienced what by then was becoming known as Am Fear Lithe Mòr, or Ferlas Mor, or the Big Grey Man of Ben Macdui, because of its appearance when briefly glimpsed by a few of those who encountered it.
‘The first was alone, heading over MacDhui for Corrour on a night when the snow had a hard, crisp crust through which his boots broke at every step. He reached the summit and it was while he was descending the slopes which fall towards the Larig that he heard footsteps behind him, footsteps not in the rhythm of his own, but occurring only once for every three steps he took.
‘I felt a queer crinkly feeling in the back of my neck,” he told me, “but I said to myself, ‘This is silly, there must be a reason for it.’ So I stopped, and the footsteps stopped, and I sat down and tried to reason it out. I could see nothing. There was a moon about somewhere, but the mist was fairly thick. The only thing I could make of it was that when my boots broke through the snow-crust they made some sort of echo. But then every step should have echoed, and not just this regular one-in-three. I was scared stiff. I got up, and walked on, trying hard not to look behind me. I got down all right – the footsteps stopped a thousand feet above the Larig – and I didn’t run. But if anything had so much as said ‘Boo!’ behind me, I’d have been down to Corrour like a streak of lightning!”
‘The second man’s experience was roughly similar. He was on MacDhui, and alone. He heard footsteps. He was climbing in daylight, in summer; but so dense was the mist that he was working by compass, and visibility was almost as poor as it would have been at night. The footsteps he heard were made by something or someone trudging up the fine screes which decorate the upper parts of the mountain, a thing not extraordinary in itself, though the steps were only a few yards behind him, but exceedingly odd when the mist suddenly cleared and he could see no living thing on the mountain, at that point devoid of cover of any kind.
‘Did the steps follow yours exactly?’ I asked him.
‘No,’ he said. ‘That was the funny thing. They didn’t. They were regular all right; but the queer thing was that they seemed to come once for every two and a half steps I took.’
He thought it queerer still when I told him the other man’s story. You see, he was long-legged’ and six feet tall, and the first man was only five-feet-seven.
‘Once I was out with a search-party on MacDhui; and on the way down after an unsuccessful day I asked some of the gamekeepers and stalkers who were with us what they though of it all. They worked on MacDhui, so they should know. Had they seen Ferlas Mor? Did he exist, or was it just a silly story? They looked at me for a few seconds, and then one said: ‘We do not talk about that.'” (Undiscovered Scotland)
Is there a reasonable doubt to these tales? “Witnesses that report something happening on the mountainside are often reluctant to return to the scene of their encounter. Professor Collie went on record with that sentiment. Researchers into these sightings do offer something in the realm of a possible explanation as to what exactly is going on at Ben Macdui. The phenomenon known as a Brocken Spectre is a possible culprit. Sometimes referred to as the Brocken Bow or Mountain Spectre, it is a trick of light played on the eye which makes you believe an enormous shadow creature is facing an observer. This effect is caused by a projection of the observer’s own shadow cast onto a mountain side or cloud bank at an altitude that is either manipulated or magnified by the terrain. First identified by Johann Silberschlag in 1780 in the German Harz mountain range, it can even be seen from inside airborne aircraft.” (Historic Mysteries)